Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Economy and Race: Interactive Determinants of Property Crime in the United States, 1958-1995: Reflections on the Supply of Property Crime

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Economy and Race: Interactive Determinants of Property Crime in the United States, 1958-1995: Reflections on the Supply of Property Crime

Article excerpt


From social disorganization and routine activity perspectives, factors such as economic indicators, including unemployment and inflation, have frequently been used to study property crime (Smith, Devine, and Sheley, 1992; Cantor and Land, 1985; Devine, Sheley, and Smith, 1988). Economic frustration motivates criminality (a premise of routine activity theory) (Devine, Sheley, and Smith, 1988) and structurally inhibits communal deterrence capacities contributing to changes in crime rates (a consequence of social disorganization) (Devine, Sheley, and Smith, 1988; Morris, 1958; Wirth, 1938).

Further, structural/institutional studies of race have also found positive effects on crime evidenced by disparate arrest rates between majority and minority populations (Smith and Jarjoura, 1988; Patterson, 1991; Smith, Devine, and Sheley, 1992). Moreover, recent evidence suggests that majority members of the population may have a lower threshold at which worsening economic conditions spur criminality (Smith, Devine, and Sheley, 1992).

In considering unemployment, Cantor and Land (1985) support the following: (a) a negative partial relationship between the level of aggregate unemployment and detrended fluctuations (changes) in burglary and larceny-theft; and (b) a positive partial relationship between fluctuations (changes) in unemployment and fluctuations (changes) in burglary and larceny-theft. The former supported criminal opportunity effects while the latter supported criminal motivation. Further, studies such as those conducted by Bennett (1991) (involving fifty-two countries between the years 1960 and 1984) traverse national boundaries, promoting cross-national attention and expansion of this type of inquiry.

From a rational choice perspective, in conjunction with apprehension, conviction, and punishment, changing economic conditions (as reflected in inflation and unemployment rates) partially affect criminal decisions to participate or not in the commission of crimes. The starting point for this theory is

an assumption that offenders seek to benefit themselves by their criminal behavior; that this involves the making of decisions and choices, however rudimentary on occasion these processes might be; and that these processes exhibit a measure of rationality, albeit constrained by limits of time and ability and the availability of relevant information (Cornish and Clarke, 1986, p. 1).

Some economists, notably Becker (1968), have quantitatively developed this line of theory, arguing that, to determine how to optimally combat crime, it is necessary to understand the relations between the number of offenses and the (1) cost of offenses, (2) punishments "meted out," (3) public expenditures on police and courts, (4) costs of imprisonment and other types of punishments, and (5) private expenditures on protection and apprehension (p. 172).

Becker (1968, 1974) subsequently provides the supply function of crime to be:

[O.sub.j] = [O.sub.j]([p.sub.j], [f.sub.j], [u.sub.j])

where [O.sub.j] equals the numbers of offenses a potential criminal would commit in a given period, [p.sub.j] equals the probability of conviction per offense, [f.sub.j] the punishment per offense, and [u.sub.j] a "portmanteau variable representing. . .[all]. . .other influences" (1974, p. 10), which include factors such as income available from illegal and legal activities, frequency of "nuisance" (Becker, 1968, p. 177) arrests, risk of unemployment, marginalized return calculations, etc. For simplicity, the average values of p, f, and u across all offenders is specified as the market offense function O = O(p,f,u) regardless of individual differences. This function is "assumed. . .to be negatively related to p and f and to be more responsive to the former than the latter, and only if, offenders on balance have risk preference" (Becker 1968, p. 178). Becker cites state-level correlation analyses by Smigel (1965) and Ehrlich (1967) that support similar results for seven felonies. …

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